Saturday, May 4, 2013

From the Print Room Archives: Andy Warhol in the Flesh

When I started as an undergraduate at Oberlin College, I knew I needed a part-time job. I was prepared to wash dishes. But through a combination of pure accident and prescient timing I was hired at Oberlin’s prestigious Allen Memorial Art Museum as a Print Room assistant, a position that before my job interview, knowing little about the inner sanctums of art museums, I had mixed up in my head with Copy Room assistant. I had the vague notion that I would be Xeroxing flyers for minimum wage when, reporting to the museum for my interview, I was greeted in the lobby by a young curator with a freshly-issued PhD. She took me up to a tiny office in a large, airy room that was not in fact for photocopying but for storing and displaying the museum’s exquisite collection of prints, drawings and photographs the Print Room assistant-to-be would help manage and oversee.

Gobsmacked, armed with a couple of art history survey classes and the attitude that this was ridiculously, almost surreally, better than washing dishes – better, even, than Xeroxing – I stated my case and the curator, almost as new to Oberlin as I was and without knowing any better, gave me the position without waiting to interview the mob of upperclassman art history majors who were more richly deserving, and infinitely more qualified, than I. But I was dutiful and a quick study, and perhaps more importantly, utterly in awe. Three times a week I signed in for my ring of keys that unlocked the old wooden cupboards beneath the print gallery display cases where resided the long, shallow black solander boxes filled with matted prints. I would unlatch a box and delicately pick up each print in turn, peel off the strip of glassine beneath the mat to uncover the naked image it sheathed. My job was to pull prints from storage for research visits or classes; in this way, I held etchings by Rembrandt and by Whistler, the ragged modern woodcuts of Kirchner and Nolde which seemed to me, on each viewing, both furious and sad, and a pastel of a nude woman by Matisse that electrified me with its sudden intimacy, as though, unseen by either artist or model, I had drawn back a curtain on the spongy brightness of her defiant sensuality.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Off the Shelf: Croupier (1998)

When novels or movies delve into the intensely turbulent world of gambling, it's often from the point of view of the gambler. Which makes perfect sense, dramatically speaking, since it is the gambler who daringly tries to reinvent himself by risking everything. Quite simply these nervy, often unstable individuals, who have fascinated novelists from Dostoyevsky to Dick Francis, make great protagonists because they can feel like Charles Wells one minute and one of the walking dead in the next. There have been many good movies on the subject, too – Robert Altman's California Split (1974), Jacques Demy's Bay of Angels (1963), Albert Brooks's Lost in America (1985). All of them gleefully revel in showing just how giddy and precarious the lives of gamblers can be.

Rarely, though, do we see the perspective from the other side of the blackjack table. But director Mike Hodges's Croupier, a taut, tough-minded crime drama, with a razor sharp script by Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth), shifts its focus from the guy betting the chips to the one dealing the cards. And the view, although radically different, is every bit as riveting. Where a gambler constantly flirts with the idea of losing control, the croupier always struggles with his ability to maintain it. Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) is just such a control freak. He's a budding writer in Britain whose first novel has just been rejected. While trying to come up with another idea for his publisher friend Giles (Nick Reding), Jack's estranged father calls from South Africa. He has a lead for a job as a croupier in a British casino. Jack, who was trained in the profession by his father years before, wants to escape his family past. but he also needs a job and a salary.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Paternity as a Curse: The Place Beyond the Pines

Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines

The writer-director Derek Cianfrance first attracted attention with his ambitious second feature, Blue Valentine (2010), starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a young working-class couple whose marriage is imploding. A ferocious, frustrating, exciting movie, Blue Valentine had some clunky, obvious conceitsa symbolic dog, a surreally tacky love shack of a motel room called the “Future Room,” to hammer home the irony that it was there that the couple learned that a future was what their relationship didn’t have. It sometimes felt a little like a Cassavettes-style movie in which the actors had been jacked up to the sky and turned loose, with instructions to tear into each other until some unbearable Truths had been unearthed. But Cassavettes, whose theory of art boiled down to the notion that we’re at our most beautiful when we behave like hostile babbling drunks who a suicide hotline worker would hang up on, wouldn’t have known what to do with Ryan Gosling, who is that rare actor who, in the right role, can actually make being inarticulate seem like a poetic state and make undirected animal energy romantic.

In Blue Valentine, Cianfrance scrambled the time sequence, cutting back and forth between the characters’ courtship and the last, flailing hours of their marriage, in a way that indicated that the undeniable spark they had when they met was just the start of the emotional conflagration that would eventually make their lives together unworkable. It’s a measure of the ambition behind his new movie, The Place Beyond the Pines, that this time he sticks to a linear narrative structure that somehow feels more challenging than the structure of Blue Valentine. The movie’s title refers to the Mohawk word for Schenectady, but it also suggests an urban civilization that has become a trap, both for the poor and the downtrodden, who can’t find any way to improve their lot, and the privileged and successful, who are corrupted by the system and driven insane by their power and their more luxurious distractions. It’s a film about fathers and sons, and about fate, and a movie that means to drive the viewer to outrage while at the same time adhering to the gospel of Jean Renoir, that “the terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons.” It aims at being a modern American Greek tragedy. It’s uneven and it falters, but not because Cianfrance doesn’t have the talent to back up his ambitions. His real problem is that his talent is too rich and unruly to be confined within the outmoded literary models he’s using to craft his masterpiece.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

When the Mystique Evaporates: Bobby Whitlock

Derek and the Dominos, 1970. From left: Jim Gordon, Carl Radle, Bobby Whitlock, Eric Clapton.

“Bobby Whitlock” is familiar as a name, if not quite an identity, to any fan of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Derek & The Dominoes’ Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, and Delaney and Bonnie and Friends’ On Tour with Eric Clapton; Whitlock played and sang on all of those 1970 albums. Born in Memphis, whose clubs seasoned his soul vocals and guitar and keyboard skills, Whitlock was protégé to Booker T. Jones at Stax Studios before joining the band that developed around highly-touted husband-wife soul shouters Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. From there, he grew tight with Bramlett sidemen George Harrison and Eric Clapton – whence his recruitment as a Domino and subsequent appearance on All Things Must Pass. For a few years, Bobby Whitlock soared with the eagles; and while the getting was good, he recorded two solo albums, Bobby Whitlock and Raw Velvet, both released on ABC Dunhill in 1972.

Those two records, sans any outtakes or bonus tracks, have been reissued by the Future Days imprint of Seattle’s Light In the Attic Records under the omnibus title The Bobby Whitlock Story: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way – The ABC Dunhill Recordings. The reissue is a natural, the expectations great. Two obscure vintage releases by a key figure in some of the best rock of a fertile period; what fan wouldn’t want to hear this? Clapton and Harrison make guest appearances, as do many minor stars from the firmament of that time and place – bassists Klaus Voormann and Carl Radle; drummers Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner; horn players Bobby Keys and Jim Price; the Bramletts and the Edwin Hawkins Singers on backing vocals. Check the photos in the liner booklet: Whitlock looks like a rock star, with his flowing locks, oversize belt buckle, and flared trousers. From Memphis to LA to London to Miami and back again: the thing reeks of mystique.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Time’s Curator: Agnes Varda’s Ydessa, the Bears, and etc. (2004)

                     installation artist Ydessa Hendeles
Agnes Varda, the photographer-turned-filmmaker of the Left Bank, is a visual magician of quiet, understated intensity, but she still gets short shrift next to her peers among the French New Wave directors. It might be because, as the only notable woman director in a period that included Godard, Truffaut, Resnais and Varda’s late husband Jacques Demy, she was comparatively unmoved by the bewitching, tormenting subject that obsessed other directors: the allure of the female sex. Brigitte Bardot in Contempt (1963), Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim (1962), are not only enduring female icons of the screen; they are the philosophical objects of directors for whom the persistent mystery of women opens into a quest for the ontology of the subject always slipping beyond the camera’s gaze. Varda has always been less of a showman and more of a collector, less embroiled in the motion picture as an engine of erotic and philosophical desire and more susceptible to the camera’s romance with the everyday spectacles and wonders turned out by passing time.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), the early masterpiece in league with the best work of the directors mentioned above, is a real-time investigation of the passage of time in the life of a French singer convinced, after a medical test and a bad omen from her tarot card reader, that she is rapidly dying of cancer. It’s a movie about what turns up when we are really looking – both for Cleo, who moves from narcissism to self-acceptance, and for the viewer, who is treated to the sumptuous details of the film. Varda’s camera can turn out the pockets of any moment in time and find among the loose change and crumpled receipts things of sudden and surprising value. That’s also the premise behind her enchanting 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I, an exploration of contemporary forms of gleaning – from dumpster diving to found art collages – that takes its premise (and its title) from The Gleaners, that ubiquitous painting by Millet. An impish bricolage, suffused with the warm light of nineteenth century rural painting but full of the jagged beats and changing rhythms of urban photography, the film disarms you with its canny curatorial vision. Nothing is lost on Varda but she preserves the fresh sense of accident and spontaneity that reveals her filmmaking itself as a gleaner’s art.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Breakfast at Tiffany’s: The Elusive Holly Golightly

Emilia Clarke and Cory Michael Smith in Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the Cort Theater.(Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Truman Capote’s fiction has a delicate sensibility – southern-poetic, like that of Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams – but an edge as hard as penny candy , and adaptors of his most famous short work, the 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, keep tripping over it. The story, set in Manhattan during the Second World War, is about a quirky, self-invented free spirit named Holly Golightly who lives on the tips the many men she dates give her for the ladies’ room. Mostly it focuses on her relationship with the narrator, an aspiring writer who lives in the apartment above hers and becomes friendly with her when she climbs through his window to escape an overly ardent admirer. She calls him Fred because he reminds her of her brother, who’s fighting overseas. Capote’s transparent inspiration was Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (the friendship between the writer and Sally Bowles in Weimar-era Berlin) and though Capote isn’t explicit about Fred’s sexuality, he plays the kind of role in her life, just as Isherwood plays in Sally’s, that a straight man clearly couldn’t.

Fred’s ambiguous sexuality was one of the many elements that director Blake Edwards and screenwriter George Axelrod sacrificed in the 1961 movie version, which many people are fond of (mostly, I think, people who don’t know the source material). Audrey Hepburn is miscast as Holly: she’s too elegant and too grounded, so her meandering life feels like a lark. Still, she’s charming and she wears the Givenchy clothes stunningly. And the movie has both enough big-budget comfort and enough engaging accessories (the cocktail party scene, Mickey Rooney’s outrageously funny revue-sketch caricature of a Japanese) to get by – until Buddy Ebsen shows up as Holly’s backwoods hubby and we’re asked to believe a back story about Holly that Hepburn can’t possibly embody. Worse, the movie turns into a romantic comedy with Hepburn paired with the colorlessly handsome George Peppard as the writer.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

When Things Go Bump in the Night: The Novels of Andrew Pyper

Novelist Andrew Pyper

Lost Girls (1999), Andrew Pyper’s terrific debut novel, an updating of the nineteenth century Gothic, in the guise of a courtroom drama, contains elements reminiscent of a Henry James ghost story and to Bram Stoker’s infamous denizen from Transylvania. A Toronto law firm has dispatched Bartholomew Christian Crane, a lawyer willing to go to any length to win a case, to cottage country to defend Thomas Tripp, a former school teacher who has been charged with the murder of two young girls who have gone missing; their bodies have never been found. Crane learns that his spaced-out client attributes the girls’ disappearance to the legendary ghost of a woman who drowned fifty years ago. Crane, a loner with a cocaine problem, becomes increasingly obsessed with the legend that awakens a long-repressed personal tragedy and the aftermath he experienced twenty years before. The setting, both at the lake and in the town populated by eccentrics and the bizarre, forces him to confront that tragedy leaving the case increasingly secondary. Pyper is very good at weaving the Gothic tropes of doubling – Crane becomes a mirror image of Tripp – and the uncanny – the Goth girls who shadow Crane in his addled mind become interchangeable with the lost girls who drowned. At one point as Crane disintegrates, in part fuelled by his drug intake, he muses that he is surprised he “can see [himself] in mirrors at all anymore, the way [he has] come to live like a vampire; [doesn’t] eat regular food, awake most of the night, fingernails the yellowed sharpness of talons, a feeling a little monstrous too, in the baffled way of the walking dead.” In the end, whether Tripp is guilty seems irrelevant because it is the Gothic elements that most engage the reader.